by Aruldoss SJ - SAR News: Bombay - 051, September 19-25, 1992
There is discrimination against dalits within
the Christian Church itself in Tamil Nadu, says a study conduced
by Fr Antony Raj SJ, a dalit Jesuit and sociologist.
The study titled DIscrimination Against Dalit
Christians in Tamil Nadu, was started by the jesuits in 1988. It
was published on August 9, 1992, at the Institute of Development,
Education, Action and Studies (IDEAS) Centre Madurai.
Fr. Antony Raj is a former president of the Dalit
Christian Liberation Movement of Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry. At
present, he is the Research Director of Dalit Research project at
the IDEAS Centre, Madurai.
This study is an attempt at assessing the existence and the extent
of the practice of untouchability within Christian Church (principally,
the Roman Catholic Church in Tamil Nadu). It intends to persuade
the government of India to make the necessary constitutional amendments
to list dalit Christians in the schedule caste category so that
they too benefit from the policy of protective or favored discrimination.
It is hoped that the findings of this study will enlighten the authorities
in the Church to correct and rectify archaic and regressive caste
The sampling involves 9,000 respondents, which roughly works out
to 1.2 per cent of the total Christian population in the Tamil Nadu.
The Statistical Handbook of Tamil Nadu, 1987, gives the following
data regarding the distribution of the scheduled caste population
in urban and rural areas: rural 17,90,664 (78.84 per cent), urban
17,90,631 (20.16 per cent). Since almost 80 per cent of the dalit
population lives in villages, the survey lays great stress on dalits
who are living in rural areas. Of the total 9,000 households studies,
94.5 per cent live in villages.
The following discriminatory practices are found from the data
of two chapels, one for non-dalits and the other for the dalits.
In some parishes liturgical services are conducted separately.
arrangements within the same chapel. Dalits are usually seated at
the two aisles. Even if there are benches or chairs, dalits are
required only to be seated on the floor.
of two separate cemeteries and two separate hearses to carry the
of two separate queues to receive the sacred body of Christ. In
some places, dalits are required to receive communion only after
are not allowed to be altar boys and lectors at the sacred liturgy.
restrict the Corpus Christi procession, Palm Sunday procession and
other processions to the limits of their streets.
not invited to participate in the washing of feet ceremony on Maundy
For fear of
claiming equal participation in the celebration of the feast of
the parish patron saint, Parish Councils decide not to collect financial
contribution from dalits.
of the village patron saint is celebrated separately.
Using various statistical computations, namely, combined frequency
technique, ratio technique, average and dispersion technique, Fr
Antony Raj has tried to gauge the nature and extent of discrimination.
Questions relating to the nature and extent of discrimination as
practiced by high caste Hindus, caste Christians, caste nuns and
caste priests are: Do they visit your home? Do they drink water
in your home when offered? Do they eat in your home when invited?
Are you able to have them as your close friends? Do they accept
you as colleagues? Do they admit you into their homes? Do they expect
submissive forms of address and body postures when you speak to
them? Do they address your elders respectfully? Do they speak about
your caste mentality? Do they call you by your caste appellation?
It is evident from the statistical data to the first nine questions
that the caste Hindus and caste Christians are more discriminating
than nuns and priests. However, the difference is only marginal.
All four groups exercise a degree of discrimination which is quite
substantial. The last two questions offer some startling revelations.
Non-dalit nuns and priests are more discriminating than caste Hindus
and caste Christians. In terms of percentage frequency nuns (78
per cent) and priests (79 per cent) speak about caste mentality,
which is a discouraging factor. The same applies to the fact that
they call dalits by their caste appellation - nuns (81 per cent)
and priests (84 per cent).
"The practices of Christianity as observed through exploratory
observation and empirical data (statistical analysis) have their
roots in the Hindu social order. Christianity in India is a hinduised
idea which has incorporated all socio-cultural caste rites and rules
of the Hindu community."
Economic discrimination: The plight of the dalits' economic
position has been to the issue of landlessness. In an agricultural
society like India, land is an important consideration. The landed
high caste had deprived the dalits of owning land or property of
any kind. This is intended to ensure the supply of a stream of continuous
and permanent labour force. Landless and dependent, the lower castes
lead an economical unfree and penurious life.
From the survey, it is culled that 12,086 persons out of 9,000
families sell their labour, and 607 persons have to sell themselves
to eke out a living. They are called unfree labourers. Of the 607
unfree labourers, 243 are indebted to the landowners. Out of 9,000
families, 3744 (41.6 per cent) have taken loans and are indebted
to various types of creditors. About 71.23 per cent have borrowed
to meet their daily consumer needs. Only 599 out of 9,000 households
(6.6 per cent) have savings below Rs 3,000. Thus 93 per cent of
the dalit Christians have no saving at all.
While the majority of the dalit Christians (around 58 per cent)
are able to have three meals a day, over 39 per cent are unable
to do so. More than 25 per cent of the families have clothes valued
at Rs 100 or less for the whole family, and over 65 per cent have
clothes worth less than Rs 200. Hence, 65 per cent of the dalit
Christians have clothes worth less valued less than Rs 39 per head.
Over 19 per cent of the dalit Christians do not own homes. Since
nine-tenths of the rural households in the Tamil Nadu have their
own homes, 10 per cent of the dalit Christians have no homes of
their own. As of 31/01/1988, 99.4 per cent of the villages in Tamil
Nadu have been supplied with electricity. But 67 per cent of the
dalit Christians do not enjoy this facility.
Dalit Christian children are prone to attacks of fever. As much
as 17.62 per cent of the dalit Christian children are killed annually
by this sickness for which simple medical remedies could be procured.
About 4.97 per cent of the dalit children become victims of dysentery
and diarrhoea. All this underscores the extent of poverty and lack
of financial means o obtain these simple facilities by dalit Christians.
Needless to say, the economic situation of dalits leaves much room
Educational discrimination: UNICEF says to be illiterate
is to be excluded. When a dalit was asked why she did not send her
son to school, she answered: "My son is not going to be a collector,
so why brother?" For this dalit, education is a gateway for
status and lucrative employment, which she feels is closed to her
kind. The attitude of this woman will reflect the position of the
dalits in general.
A lack of economic resources of Christian dalits is one of the
main reasons for the poor showing as seen from the survey. The attitude
of priests and nuns in our Christian schools is not helpful to the
cause of the dalit Christian students. There is also a small percentage
of dalit Christian students who dropped out of school. Maybe education,
as they see it, does not promise them a good future either. Even
after completing school they are unable to obtain employment. Bribes,
even in Christian institution, are also a deterring factor.
The distribution of dalit Christians according to their occupations
(1990) is high administrative - 0.62 %, lower administrative - 2.68%,
professional - 0.60%, teaching - 3.57%, clerical - 1.37%, trade
& commerce - 0.75%, transport and public utility - 1.72%, manufacturing,
processing & service - 2.26%, construction - 2.80%, own cultivation
- 7.29%, agricultural labourers - 54.75%, livestock, forestry etc.
- 1.05%, menial - 1.80%, other - 18.74%.
There is not a single IAS or IPS officer from the ranks of the
dalit Christian community. Only those who got reconverted to Hinduism
managed to enter into the administrative services.
It appears that to be a dalit Christian is to be excluded from
the mainstream of society.
Powerlessness: The experience of dalit Christians is one
of felt of powerlessness. Among those who are involved in politics
non are given any important position at the national or at state
level. There has not been any evidence of dalit Christian representation
either in the central or state cabinet. Even at the party rank and
file no dalit Christian is given any importance. Political reservation
of seats in Parliament and state assembly is non-existent. As they
have been marginalized in politics, their grievances go unheard,
More than ever, the state wields extraordinary power through the
legislative, executive and the judiciary. There is no dalit Christian
either in the legislature, executive or judiciary. The non-representation
in these bodies renders the positions of dalit Christians weak and
impotent. The government does not offer the dalit Christians any
privileges that are enjoyed by the Hindu dalits.
The press as a powerful agency for social change pays scant or
no attention to the problems faced by the dalit Christians.
The Church has under its control vast land property, medical and
educational institutions, and developmental organs like multi-purpose
society. These various departments are largely manned by non-dalits.
In fact, the authority of the Church is in the hands of non-dalit
priests. Non-dalit priests occupy 92.3 per cent of the offices in
the five Catholic dioceses. The lack of dalit representation in
the administrative and consultative bodies means lack of opportunity
to present their cause at the decision-making level. This is crucial
factor. For example, out of the 9,000 respondents, 5,766 (64 per
cent) said they were not consulted by their priests on parish activities.
Only 305 (9.43 per cent) said that they had been consulted. That
too not in any significant way.
Finally, the ennui of powerlessness faced by the dalit Christians
in the Church is a matter of deep concern. Out of despair, frustration
and confusion, the powerless dalits may garner and muster enough
strength and conviction to fight back. If they do, the struggle
could be violent. When violence is the end product, the outcome
will be uncertain.